AFC Bournemouth Women’s striker Gemma Hillier might’ve been around the game for almost two decades, but she is back playing with a smile on her face after pausing her grass career a few years ago.
Having signed for Steve Cuss’ side in the summer, she is looking to help the team to promotion from the Southern Region Women’s Premier League and has featured in every fixture so far this season.
To mark Women’s Football Weekend, the 33-year-old gave a lengthy and honest interview to afcb.co.uk, where she expressed her delight since signing for the Cherries and the role that she can play both on and off the pitch.
“I’m absolutely loving it,” she began.
“I hadn’t played grass football for three-and-a-half years for loads of different reasons.
"I fell out of love with the game, I didn’t feel like the club I was with was going anywhere and I wanted to concentrate on beach soccer because that was going really well at the time and I was having a lot of opportunities to travel the world with it.
“I’d had a few offers to play grass football in the years that I was off, but none of them really made me excited to play, whereas when Paul [Topping] and Steve [Cuss] got in touch with me and invited me up to have a little look around, I was really enthused.
"They talked through what the plan was and what the idea was over the next few years and I was really motivated.
“I knew straight away that I wanted to get back into grass football and I definitely haven’t regretted it.
“The vision of the club is really great and the girls are absolutely brilliant – there are some really great young players coming through and I think there’s a really great future for the club. It’s something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Despite having not played competitive grass football for almost four years, Hillier, who represented Team GB in the World Beach Games last year, explained more about the benefits of beach soccer and how it has helped her return this season.
“Fitness is definitely the hardest part of the game and the technical aspect is tough as well.
“Essentially, the game itself is the same, but you’re just playing football on the sand.
“You only play five-a-side and you literally only play for two minutes at a time because the fitness element of it is at such a high intensity.
“I have found that playing beach soccer has really helped with my grass game. I was just starting to get into my stride with it and the beach soccer has only helped with that.”
Hillier went on to discuss how the sale of an old bike was the unlikely catalyst for a transition back into grass football.
“It’s quite funny really because I didn’t know Steve or Paul before,” she explained.
“In the first lockdown, I was clearing out my garage and I had an old road bike for sale so I put it up on social media and, within about five seconds, Paul messaged me to say he wanted it!
“I was worried that he hadn’t even seen it or that it might not work, so I gave him my number and we had a call and it developed from there. It’s quite a cool story really!”
However, one thing that the forward had to think about before returning to the grass was sourcing a suitable pair of boots, something that she discovered was a trickier task when you only have size three feet.
“I’ve got really fat feet and obviously, coming back to football, I needed to find boots that fitted me. I think I probably tried on about 30 pairs in the end!
“Anyway, I found a pair on the Nike website and it was the same style that I used to wear, so I thought it was a result. They turned up though and the tongues were elasticated, so I knew my fat feet weren’t going to fit in there!
“I cut the elastic off and they were still too small, so I got a new pair that were a bigger size but I had these boots that I just couldn’t sell or send back, so I gave them to one of the young girls who comes to watch us and plays football with the community team.
“It was nice because it was our FA Cup game against Buckland and, at the end of the game, she came on the pitch to get everyone’s signatures and so I asked her what size feet she had – she was over the moon after!"
It’s not just off the pitch where Hillier is having an influence, with the Fareham Academy teacher also able to offload her knowledge to the younger members of the squad.
Having made 293 appearances, with 99 goals to her name, across a 17-year period at hometown club Portsmouth, she is keen to pass on that experience with the Cherries.
“Football is really different now,” she said.
“I made my debut in a women’s team aged 14, which isn’t allowed these days, but I totally know how the youngsters feel even at age 16.
“It is really scary and, when I first came to the club, none of the youngsters would say a word, and they would just talk to each other.
“When we were playing matches, or in training, they’d be quite shy whereas now quite a few of them who are playing regularly, you can really see how their confidence has grown. They’re a lot louder now and they’re not scared to talk to some of the older players for advice which is really nice.”
With the women on a run of six straight wins, Hillier concluded by assessing the side’s start to the season and explained how the recent suspension of fixtures was frustrating for a team in such fine form.
“We’ve had an amazing start," she said. "I don’t think anyone could’ve imaged how well we have started but I know all the players are working really hard in lockdown and there’s massive competition for places.
“I think for me, having not played for three-and-a-half years, I feel like I’m still trying to find my feet.
“In the last couple of games, I was trying to get back to the standard that I was playing at before but, for me personally, it’s really annoying because a stop-start season at my age isn’t ideal and I’m not getting any younger!
“At the end of the day, it’s just a case of everyone working hard in lockdown and coming back fitter and stronger than we were before.”
AFC Bournemouth Women are proudly supported by two local companies.
Thank you to Bournemouth University for being the front of shirt sponsor and thank you to Vitality for supporting our women’s and girls' setup.